Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Your Body During a Breakup: The Science of a Broken Heart

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Breakups are emotional roller coasters. Actually that’s not true. If a breakup was anything like a roller coaster the end would be visible from the start, you could say ‘no thanks’ to the ride and at the end of it, for a hefty sum the memory could be savoured forever with a flimsy cardboard-framed photo.

Breakups are are more like being under a roller coaster. 

Before we knew the science we knew the feeling, and used words associated with physical pain – hurt, pain, ache – are used describe the pain of a relationship breakup. Now we know why. The emotional pain of a breakup and physical pain have something in common – they both activate the same part of the brain

Brain scans of people recently out of a relationship have revealed that social pain (the emotional pain from a breakup or rejection) and physical pain share the same neural pathways.

In one study, 40 people who had recently been through an unwanted breakup had their brains scanned while they looked at pictures of their exes and thought about the breakup. As they stared at the photos, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up.

As explained by researcher Ethan Kross, ‘We found that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion.’

He continues, ‘These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.’

In further support of the overlap between physical and social pain, Tylenol (an over the counter medication for physical pain) has been shown to reduce emotional hurt.

Research has found that people who took Tylenol (an over-the-counter medication for physical pain) for three weeks reported less hurt feelings and social pain on a daily basis than those who took a placebo.

The effect was also evident in brain scans. When feelings of rejection were induced, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up in participants who didn’t take Tylenol. Those who took Tylenol showed significantly less activity in that part of the brain.

Nobody is suggesting that the broken hearted turn to pain medication to reduce their lean towards Kleenex, Baskin-Robbins and repeated viewings of Love Actually. Long term use will cane the liver. Somebody else is waiting to fall in love with you, but you and your liver have to stay friends forever.

The Physical Side of a Broken Heart

The human brain loves love. Being in love takes the lid off the happy hormones, dopamine and oxytocin, and the brain bathes in the bliss. But when the one you love leaves, the supply of feel good hormones takes a dive and the brain releases stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.

In small doses, stress hormones are heroic, ensuring we respond quickly and effectively to threat. However in times of long-term distress such as a broken heart, the stress hormones accumulate and cause trouble. Here’s what’s behind the physical symptoms of a breakup:

  • Too much cortisol in the brain sends blood to the major muscle groups. They tense up ready to respond to the threat (fight or flight). However, without real need for a physical response the muscles have no opportunity to expend the energy.

    Muscles swell, giving rise to headaches, a stiff neck and that awful feeling of your chest being squeezed.

  • To ensure the muscles have an adequate blood supply, cortisol diverts blood away from the digestive system.

    This can cause tummy trouble such as cramps, diarrhea or appetite loss. 

  • When stress hormones run rampant, the immune system can struggle, increasing vulnerability to bugs and illnesses.

    Hence the common ‘break-up cold’.

  • There is a steady release of cortisol.

    This might cause sleep problems and interfere with the capacity to make sound judgements 

  • Breakups activate the area of your brain that processes craving and addiction.

    Losing a relationship can throw you into a type of withdrawal, which is why it’s hard to function – you ache for your ex, sometimes literally, and can’t get him/her out of your head. Like any addiction, this will pass.

In a relationship, your mind, your body and the core of you adjust to being intimately connected someone. When that someone leaves, the brain has to readjust. The pain can be relentless but eventually the body chemistry will change back to normal and the hurt will diminish.

Getting through a breakup is as much a physical process as an emotional one. Remember that, and know that it will get easier. Keep going. You’ll get there.

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345 Comments

felix

i am currently going through the same feelings now she just left and said i should forget about her though i dont also want to go back to her because i know she might hurt me the more but still i cant get my mind of her how are you coping now ? were you able to totally forget about her ?

Reply
batphink

Felix was that intended for me? If so it’s been 3 years and 6 months and though I still have the odd bad day I have 100% accepted the fact she is never contacting me again. I have been through this so many times with women that I now no longer bother with them. Good Luck you WILL feel better sooner than you think concentrate on improving you and your life:)

Reply
Abrianna P

Me and My ex had been up & down. It was long distance. We had broken up several times. We hurt each other back and forth. He would constantly belittle me and call me names and made me feel bad for guys always wanting to talk to me, yet i only had eyes for him. We decided we were gonna meet up after a year in about 4 weeks. He started getting distant and acting different last week. He kept telling me he was busy, turns out he was in a thing with another female who was MY FRIEND. I confronted him and he started acting like an a**hole. And now my chest feels so heavy, this happened yesterday. I’m about to graduate high school this Thursday and I am struggling and crying while studying. I feel like throwing up, I am just tryna push it through

Reply
batphink

If he treats you this was and you’re not married could you imagine the tension of you were and all the legal hoops he;d make you jump through?
You are you and believe me though I’m a guy I went through so much hell with cheating women that I no longer bother.Like I said you are young and guys want to chat with you,remember that you have plenty of chances of finding a truly decent guy don’t rush it.Trust me when I say you WILL get over this,I’m a bit of an expert. Best Wishes and keep your mind focused on improving your life 🙂

Reply
Richard B

Just recently exited a 5 year relationship. Just going to leave a few bullet points down below that ultimately led to our demise.

– Twice, in 5 years, did she ever tell me initially, she Loved me first, I always said it.
– Never posted a picture on any social media platform of us, and she was an avid daily user.
– Never liked, commented, or responded to anything I ever posted on Social media…actually once, she liked a photo a posted then unliked it, true story.
– Made me feel guilty for not offering her financial help when her work reduced her hours for 2 months…but said she wouldn’t have taken any money if I offered, but upset that I didn’t offer…(She lived at home, with her Mom, no rent, no bills to pay, just her own, makes 45k a year…I really didn’t think she needed help.)
– Asked me how much money I had in my 401k.
– Asked if my sister and husband signed a pre-nup.
– Her Mom paid for her breast augmentation. (found that out much later.)
– Admitted 3 months prior to the end, she was “spoiled and lazy, and knows it.”

Reply
Marisela M

I been in a 3 year on and off relationship. He was nice at first but started to get upset for little things. I didn’t hang the towel straight, toothpaste cap didn’t put it on. Till name calling started and even told me to get of his truck in middle of the night. I for gave him many times. Till l asked for commitment or Separate ways. He said he was done, didn’t have time for me. I didn’t understand his work hours. Hurts but am mourning a time l spend on someone that doesn’t deserve me.

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